I admire almost everything about Narcopolis, a strange and intriguingly offensive novel about opium addiction in India. It was short-listed last year for the Mann Booker Prize and its author, Jeet Thayil is the first Indian writer to win the coveted ($50,000) DSC Prize for South Asian Literature .
The first sentence alone runs for 7 mesmerizing pages that in lesser hands would have been a gimmicky imitation of William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junky) or Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater).
But here the beautifully poetic Prologue flows off the page like the smoke from an opium pipe. Soon we don’t read Narcopolis — we inhale it, get hooked on it, are haunted by its unsettling, dreamlike blur. The opiate-addicted characters may have “fallen” in society’s eyes, but there is no guilt in Narcopolis, only the allure, the freedom, the obsession and the artistry of induced elation. Closing the book, we feel it’s been seeping into our pores.
Narcopolis follows a half-dozen opium addicts across a span of 40 years, during which a luxuriously slow-moving Bombay morphs into the fast-paced, corporatized and increasingly violent Mumbai.
Soon opium itself is transformed into a more marketable version of heroin called “The Chemical,” a drug so filled with rat poison that it blows your brains out while giving you a stupendous high.